Health care spat raises red flags in Jewish quarters

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As bloggers, radio hosts and protesters ratchet up their rhetoric in the fight against health care reform, many are unapologetically utilizing inflammatory rhetoric and imagery — often in ways that could be expected to raise alarms in some corners of the Jewish community.

Protesters and radio talking heads, notably Rush Limbaugh, have been comparing the Obama administration to Nazis. A Democratic congressman had a swastika drawn on the sign in front of his office. Bloggers are exploiting images of Anne Frank, tagging her with the Obama health care plan’s symbol instead of a yellow star.

Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Committee has argued for health care reform. photo/jta/rac

“Historically, whenever there are turbulent times, it’s always bad for the Jews,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance, and the current environment is “unstable” with “a lot of turbulence.”

“The breakdown of civility is normally a danger for minority groups, period,” said Michael Berenbaum, a professor of Jewish studies at American Jewish University in Los Angeles and the project director during the creation of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

“It’s a particular danger for Jews” because “the climate in which we thrive is one where there is security,” he said, noting that the worst period of anti-Semitism in the United States was in the post-Great Depression 1930s, where there was no economic security.

In one incident this week, a protester held a poster depicting President Barack Obama with a Hitler-style mustache during a heated town hall meeting in a Dartmouth, Mass., senior center.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) lashed out at the woman, asking “On what planet do you spend most of your time?”  She had stepped to the podium to ask why Frank supports what she called a Nazi policy.

“Ma’am, trying to have a conversation with you would be like trying to argue with a dining room table. I have no interest in doing it,” replied Frank, who is Jewish.

Jewish organizational support for the Obama administration’s plan appears to be holding steady, as only one group — the Republican Jewish Coalition — is voicing opposition.

The RJC has been urging its members to oppose Democrat-backed health care legislation, sending out an action alert last week warning that what it dubs “Obamacare” will result in massive spending and debt, and widespread loss of jobs and coverage. In its alert, the RJC warned that Obama’s plan will result in a “government takeover of health care.”

But the RJC appears to represent the lone voice among Jewish organizations speaking out on Obama’s plan. Liberal groups, including the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and the National Jewish Democratic Council, have been staunch supporters of health care reform. Both have taken to the Internet in recent days, creating Web sites advocating comprehensive health care reform.

The NJDC launched RabbisFor and the RAC started

“For the sake of our democracy, and for the sake of a health care system that is so clearly dysfunctional, we cannot, we dare not, stand on the sidelines,” Rabbi David Saperstein, the RAC director, said in a statement.

Bill Nigut, Southeast Region director for the Anti-Defamation League in Atlanta, said the “first casualty” of the ratcheting up of the health care debate has been a “respectful democratic process.” He voiced disgust at the entrance of Nazi symbols and rhetoric, including the painting of a swastika on a sign in front of the office of Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.)

Deborah Lipstadt, a modern Jewish and Holocaust studies professor at Emory University, said she did not see any specific reason for the Jewish community to be concerned. “Civil discord is never good for society” and Jews are just part of society, she said.

Lipstadt, who won a libel suit brought against her in a British court by revisionist historian David Irving, said she was appalled by the use of Nazi analogies in the debate, calling it “dangerous” and a “form of Holocaust denial” because “it’s a denial of what Nazism is.”

She added that she did not think those employing the false analogies were anti-Semites, but just had “no shame” and would “say anything to make their point.”

Berenbaum said he has particular scorn for those comparing the Obama health care plan to Nazi policies. For instance, he noted that the right to be informed of and consent to one’s medical treatment grew out of the Nuremberg trials — because that’s “the antithesis of what the Nazis did.”

“Anyone who uses the Nazi analogy,” he said, “has no idea what Nazi medicine was about.”

Rachel Tepper of JTA and the Associated Press contributed to this report.